Sunday, December 7, 2014

Chronicles of a Dark Lord: Episode II: War of the Abyss: First Impressions

The good folks at Kisareth were kind enough to provide me with the pre-order package that got sent out to the people who pre-ordered Episode II on their website.
Since this package was the first thing that was sent out to the people that pre-ordered the game, I'll be reviewing that first.
The contents of the pre-order package are a sketch gallery, containing twenty-seven pieces of art. A mixture of what appear to be watercolor character portraits accented by pastels, what I think are HD redrawings of backgrounds from the first game, and the box-art for Episode II.
Next up is the soundtrack for War of the Abyss. It's sixty-five parts, clocks in at about two and a half hours long, and takes up 341MBs. I haven't listened to it at time of writing, because I want to experience it as it's presented in the game.
Last up is a special thank-you video from the developers, announcing the title of a new game, known as "Shenandor'ah: Zero Chronicle.
Which I would guess is the prequel I speculated about in my Tides of Fate review.
The video also contains some alpha-level screenshots of the game, featuring graphics which will probably be updated and improved by the time the game is ready for release. There's no word on a release window for this game, which I assume to be a prequel to Tides of Fate, but if what I've heard out of the developers through their podcasts is correct, it will probably be sometime after Tides of Fate HD is released.

Now I should probably get around to talking about the game.
Chronicles of a Dark Lord: Episode II: War of the Abyss is the highly anticipated sequel to the game I reviewed last month, Tides of Fate.
I'm going to add this game to the growing list of what I call "Triple-A indie games", titles which have a ton of time and effort thrown into them by the developers, but are released independently of big-name publishers.
I might as well just jot down the thoughts I had when I fired up the game to rebind the keys.
Okay, that's the Kisareth Studios fanfare.
War of the Abyss starts out... With the final battle from Tides of Fate.
As you can guess, I wasn't too thrilled about it. Xe'on was one of the hardest bosses I've ever faced, and I didn't want to have to fight him again.
But either they nerfed Xe'on or they just amped up the party, because it was a lot easier than it was in Tides of Fate.
Not that I'm complaining or anything. Since they changed engines and spent two years between releases, it's a nice refresher I guess.
And then... It skips a year.
And with that, most of the meat of the War of the Abyss. I know that Tides of Fate skipped a larger period of time, but I can see them doing that. Tides of Fate skipped a massive amount of time because the RMVX engine couldn't handle what they wanted to do with the story and gameplay for that period of time. And you know what? They skipped to the juicy part of the story.
In War of the Abyss however, they skipped thirteen months of story, thirteen months of grueling fighting and loss, and death, and character development.
What I'm trying to get across here is that they probably shouldn't have skipped all of that. The Kisareth team could have just abridged the whole year into the more interesting bits.
But my main gripe with it is the sheer amount of branches and storylines and sidequests that they just skipped over. Stuff that I would have loved to have been able to experience, and play, and possibly change the outcome of.
Between the timeskip, a lot of stuff happened. Among the notable things that happened during the year that they skipped, Xiria apparently had an affair with Maga'ra, and Magus divorced her for that.
This is somewhat baffling to me. Firstly because I know that Magus and Xiria were the digital avatars of a real life married couple, and secondly because Maga'ra and Xiria barely spoke to each other in the first game. So that doesn't make any sense in the context of what the player is informed of.
You see what I mean by it not being a good idea to skip a year.
The time skipping continues after the marriage of Magus and Gelina, skipping ahead a month.
And this is where we find out that everyone's skills and stats have been reset to what they were at the beginning of Tides of Fate. That is, except for Magus, whose skills have been reduced to Venom Slice.
No explanation given, no justification, and no clue as to why. Given how high the stakes were at the end of Tides of Fate, it's rather jarring that they'd take so much of a plunge. And that's highlighted by the fact that all of the characters are even more godlike in the flashback sequence at the beginning of the game than they were in my playthrough of Tides of Fate. If the stakes kept amping up at the same rate as they did in that game, they could have kept the pace going. As it is, the beginning of the game is somewhat of a letdown.
If the normal enemies were at least as powerful as say, the enemies from the Abyss in Tides of Fate were, and if the playable characters were at least as powerful as they were in that same game, then this might feel like more of a natural continuation as opposed to a jarring transition between two similar yet completely different games.
Considering how much Magus had achieved by the end of Tides of Fate, it seems like a major slap in the face to you, the player that he's lost all of the armor and other gear he and his friends looted from the Abyss and all of the skills they gained throughout thirty hours of brutal gameplay.
It's possible this could be sorted out by a future patch, or some DLC or possibly an interquel set between Tides of Fate and War of the Abyss. Or maybe the inevitable War of the Abyss novelization.
And yes, the engine transition meant that they couldn't use saves from Tides of Fate to continue in War of the Abyss. I get that, but after a while you can't keep making excuses for something. Metal Gear Solid 2 did this same thing where it just skipped a long period of interesting events. And yes, I did wind up liking MGS2 better than the original after a while, but from where I'm standing at the moment, I don't really like what they've done with the pacing.
So, let's talk plot.
Thirteen months ago, Anto Calias tricked the Army of Gods into setting loose Nihility, and started the War of the Abyss. Now the war seems to be dragging on into a defeat for the allied forces of Cora, but it shifts in their favor after a while.
Magus and his allies have been beaten back into a corner by the forces of the Abyss. With their supply-lines disrupted, their communications cut off and their backs to the wall, Magus and company band back together to avenge the fallen, drive the Abyss out of their world and kill Anto Calias.... Again.
But instead of being at the top of their game, and getting better with regularity like they were in ToF, everyone's been waging a losing battle for a year, and they're all strapped for resources.
Although maybe they'd be a little better off if they'd stop leaving their valuables and healing items in bookcases, down wells, and on sacks of flour.
Along the way, some major characters die.
And it's very sad, and heartbreaking, and everything.
So far, it seems like the story that we, the players are privy to does somewhat make up for the massive drop-off in pacing early on. It's all very touching, and it's also pretty interesting and cool, but I can't help but feel like it would all seem a little more meaningful if we'd actually experienced some of the back-story as opposed to having just been told it all happened off-screen, being given no chance to change it in the slightest.
On the other hand, you fight the four daughters of the Dark Mistresses from the first game in a very contrived way. They understand that the dude they're supposed to be cross with is the wizard, Zexor, but still want to fight Magus and his allies because they killed their mothers, even though they acknowledge that it wasn't Magus or any of his friends faults. The only one of the four fights that's actually justifiable from a sensible perspective is cut off part of the way through, because the character that she's fighting isn't one of Magus's allies.
The rest of the New Dark Mistresses fight Magus and his allies because they want them to "prove their worth" by defeating them, and that just seems like it's padding the runtime. Yes, the new Dark Mistresses theme is pretty sweet, and yes the game would be lesser without it, but the setup for three out of four of the new Dark Mistress fights is so bloody contrived that it really took me out of the whole experience.
Speaking of the fourth new Dark Mistress fight, I mentioned that the characters that fight her aren't Magus's allies. I might as well explain.
During one chapter of the game, you play as Eriadne, an Abyssal commander tasked with invading the Lee Manor and stealing the Inferni Diadem.
Most of this chapter is a mandatory stealth section. And it seems like it was inspired by a pair of similar stealth sequences in Ocarina of Time. When you get found out, you just get thrown out of the manor for some reason as opposed to being mobbed out and killed.
While you're invading the manor, you have ten minutes of invisibility, and it doesn't recharge when you get kicked out of the mansion.
You can get kicked out of the mansion by either walking through a pool of blood, opening a squeaky door, or opening a treasure-chest. Because apparently invisibility doesn't make you invisible if you make noise.
What I'm trying to get across here is the fact that this section was annoying. And since the controls haven't been fixed since the last game, it's a little difficult to not bump into the roaming guards every now and again.
If you're going to shove a stealth section into a non-stealth 2D game, either put some more thought into the stealth, just outright copy Metal Gear and Solid Snake for the MSX, or just don't put it in there. Honestly, this is the most repulsive and tedious stealth sequences I've ever had the misfortune of playing.
Now, later on that sequence drops back into traditional RPG combat, but it might as well continue being a stealth game (A much better one I might add) because you can just walk by all the enemies and traps without setting them off if you're careful. And unlike in Tides of Fate, you won't be underleveled for any of the following fights because you're already pretty powerful.
And the boss-fight right before you're dropped into the maze is about as hard as a mildly overpowered run-of-the-mill mook fight. It's a little perplexing how easy it is to get in and grab the Inferni Diadem......
So no, I didn't like the stealth in this game. It needed some tweaking.
So far, this game is pretty good. It could have done with a little less time being skipped and a little better pacing to link between this game and its prequel. After a while, you start to wonder how many prequels and interquels Kisareth is going to need to put out to patch up the storyline into something more coherent.
But right now, I do have high expectations for the rest of the game, as it seems to be looking up as time goes on.
I don't know what I've got scheduled for next week right now, but I'll try to get part two of my War of the Abyss review out then.
Hopefully I'll get my let's play of the game out sometime this week. I'm currently working on reconstructing the last part of my Episode I playthrough.